Hans L Zetterberg writes 10 pages about schools in his current book project The Many-Splendored Society. (©)
Parents and the primary groups in which the young grew up are, of course, essential providers of education for their children. The professional educators in a differentiated society are other providers deserving special attention. They arrange for much of the transfer of the appreciation of cardinal values from one generation to another. They are the trained guides on the roads on which the young generation travels to knowledge, prosperity, order, beauty, sacredness, and virtue. No measure from Pisa, the audiors of world school performance, can possibly cover all this. However, the ability to read and write is fundamental.
The society in which we live is more dependent on symbols and their transmission between generations than any historic society. The importance of the providers of cardinal values to the young is overwhelming. Training children in reading and writing — two “Rs” — has become essential for modern living. The realms of science, economy, polity, art, religion, and morality are all language products. A child in our times that falls behind in learning reading and writing, falls behind in most everything.
The great sensitivity of the child’s brain for learning languages is limited to a certain age span. It may be a huge waste, not to use this span for learning a foreign language, in addition to the mother tongue.
Since the invention of numbers, arithmetic skills also have been essential for business. The growth of science as a modern societal realm also resulted in the need to train children in mathematics; thus, this became essential not only for every-day living, but for their future study of nature and their use of the advances in medicine and engineering.
In anything that approaches a many-splendored society, there is the firm backing of “the three Rs,” reading, writing, and arithmetic as mandatory learning for children. In addition to “the three Rs,” there is a commitment in elementary schooling to civilized living, i.e. that children (as well as states) should learn to settle their conflicts by words, not fist-fights or weapons. Considering this Reliance on words and not on violence, as a “fourth R.” Together with “the three Rs,” we have then a basic fourfold agenda for in civilized living of the young training. Both modern families and all elementary schools may find these “four Rs” easy to share.
On the surface, it may look as if the post-war change of schools and education in the Western world is simply a result of its working class politics: old elites crumble and rising new ones take charge. However, to take place, the change of schooling needed more than the mechanisms of changing elites by means of democratic elections so that new people come into government offices. New intellectuals and new ideas are also at work. Change of this magnitude needs the support of strong intellectual currents of the time, often some international social movements of thought.
The intellectual grow-ground for the change of Western education in the second half of the twentieth century is a brew with ingredients from American progressive thought (John Dewey) about self-going learning. Here are celebrations from British socialism about the language and morals of the working classes (Basil Bernstein). A strong contribution is French postmodernism that equalized education with suppression (Michel Foucault). There are many strong beliefs in this brew, but, typically, little or no mention about the value of knowledge of physics, chemistry, and mathematics.
Here are five theses honored by progressive (left wing) intellectual leaders that have had a big role in changing education in Europe and North America in the last half siècle:
First. Schools are usually authoritarian organizations with many repressive features. The job of the modern teachers is to free their students from this oppression.
Second. Intelligence is a social construct.
Third. The greatest reserve of intelligence is located in the working classes.
Fourth. The linguistic codes of the working classes (blue-collar) are as clever and valuable as are those in the educated classes (white collar).
Fifth. Young people by themselves are able and motivated to seek and to research all their educational needs; the main role of their teachers should be supportive.
Sixth. The ruling classes (and particularly their capitalism) are the real masters of schools, and public education is in the service of them, not for the benefit of the people.
These sixth theses form a nexus of political ideology, of praxis in the administration of schools, and of fashionable themes of pedagogical research. In the second half of the last century, each generation of school administrators and those who daily practice schooling, i.e. the teachers, met changing demands driven by the above five theses. In my view, all of them are questionable.
Schools with tyrannical teachers, or sultanic headmasters), belong to the past, and there are fewer and fewer exceptions to this trend. Likewise, we do no longer condone schools with institutionalized bulling by older students of younger students, be this in boarding schools or in day schools.
Intelligence is not just a “social construct.” As we have seen, it has a great component of hereditary biology that does not follow the laws of social science. A tragedy of education in many Western countries in the late twentieth century is that it ignored this fact and failed to give enough attention to the brightest and most intelligent and creative students.
When inherited components in human intelligence are considered, the greatest store of reserve intelligence is located in a generation’s educated classes, not in its lower classes.
Among all factors affecting the results of instruction — and which has been tested scientifically — the role of the teacher appears as the most significant. A teaching role, we hold, comprises a leadership prescribing what students are to learn. We have discussed leadership in the previous pages of this book (2: 78-150). There are many types of leaders: authorized leaders, executive leaders, expressive leaders, nudging leaders, charismatic leaders, chairpersons, and sovereign leaders. To hear pundits and politicians ask for “better leadership in our school” is baloney until they specify what type of leadership they have in mind.
We may certainly ask of teachers that they are authorized leaders, i.e. certified to teach. We do not want teachers as sovereign leaders, be the latter tyrants or sultan-types. However, we expect that the teacher of the youngest show a fair amount of expressive leadership, an ability to articulate sensitive emotions and to teach and practice empathy. We also expect the standard skills of executive leadership, i.e. giving instruction, keeping track of progress, delegating tasks according to the achieved ability of students.
A teacher is ideal if she or he, like Anna Montessori, can observe and note that a certain student, at a particular moment in time, is ready and longing to rush into new skills and knowledge. Of the several leadership styles we have delineated, we believe that the ‘nudging leader’ may be particularly good in dealing with young people. An ‘assembly chairperson’ who allows the students to decide the agenda of study based on majority vote appears as a misplaced, or misinformed, teacher of the young. Such teachers are playing with the risk that any civilization can be lost in the course of two generations, and that a lord of the flies may emerge as the dictator. It is a tragedy when school administrators are fooled by the talk about assembly chairpersons as “democratic teachers.” Instead, they may be the gravediggers of our civilization.
The greatest benefit to the lower classes is a good universal education. The days are gone when only the higher classes received higher education. In Europe, Napoleon broke this pattern on a large scale and liberal politicians have continued. The content of the modern schools are set less by religious leaders as was common in the past. Nor is the school curriculum as influenced by captains of capital as the Marxists assume. Instead, a major function of university research has become to provide the knowledge base for schools.
In my own country of Sweden, the national creed of equality inspired the educational policy in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Grades and exams that would have revealed differences in intelligence and ability were prohibited, and pupils and students received grade only late in their school years when approaching graduation. Teachers and their superiors instituted practices pretending that no overly intelligent student needs much instruction. Their role in a classroom, if any, should be to help with the teaching the less fortunate. This form of learning promoted group instruction rather than individualized instruction, something favored by the collectivist ideology of the time.
The promoters of the egalitarian school became embarrassed and silent about the fact that equality does not apply to intelligence. Intelligence has an inherited biological part that creates certain inequalities. A way that schools could reduce the impact of this fact and obtain some equality of outcome was to ignore the needs of the brightest students and focus on helping the weak ones. Very few parents of gifted children seemed to have opposed this treatment of their brightest.
Finland has colleges for pre-school teachers but teachers in primary and secondary schools are trained in regular liberal art courses at the universities. In Sweden, by sharp contrast, Teacher Colleges train all teachers. In recent decades they have begun to accept students with much lower average grades than other professional university schools. When these students graduate and take jobs in schools, an unusual situation emerges. IQ-scores are age-neutral; every age group gets an average of 100 and the scores have comparable standard deviations. Apparently, the Swedish schools are now places in which an exceptionally large proportion of the students have higher IQ than their teachers. Such is, at least, the cruel forecast one can draw from IQ bell curves.
The dedication to equality in some school system in the second half of the twentieth century focused on the idea that “no child should be left behind.” In some school systems, this fine idea overruled the equally important great benefits of intensive instruction to the very gifted. This neglect has had visible consequences in the international ratings of school performance.
The consequences of the dedication to equality of school outcomes is felt by the universities in increasing numbers of students unprepared for writing term papers and to read scholarly texts. A visible consequence in the Swedish equality-driven school system is that the country fell steeply from positions close to the top in international rankings of school achievements to places in the middle or bottom ranges. The decline in average achievements comes not from students in the lower part of the curve that are doing ok in the equality-driven schools, but from the absence of many high-scorers. It took only three to five decades to complete this decline in the average school performance.
On the positive side, the hopes behind the school reforms were that reforms would teach the nation to live as equals and that the schools would be happier places for the young. The hope of fewer dropouts from school has materialized, at least as I read the numbers. In reality, many dropouts in recent years are temporary, and many come back in the statistics for adult education. The economic trends in the larger society are such that dropouts get fewer chances to get job interviews, has made drop-outing a more serious issue for the new generation than for earlier ones. Organizational responses in the school systems have given students have more of a choice. A variety of charter schools have come into existence, giving communities a much needed choice of schools.
Unlike other countries, Sweden has chartered most of them as ordinary shareholder corporations, thus subject to provide shareholder with profit, and subject to extinction by bankruptcies keeping teachers and students stranded. In a many-splendored society with its independent societal realms, collectivities dedicated to increase knowledge own the schools, not only the collectivities dedicated to increase richness and to prepare for participation in the democratic body politic. . In the end, the economy and the body politc will benefit anyway from the knowledge of science and the progression of art, religion, and morality.
More young people enter a phase when their time is divided between study and practicing on a job. In Europe, for example, versions of the German system of apprentices seem to be back in vogue at the time of the financial crisis in the 2010s.
One manifest function of the children's and youth schools is to prepare for future jobs of students. For that you have to be able to read, write, count, etc. A latent function of these schools is to facilitate the holding of the current jobs of the parents, as the schools must take care of the kids during a full working day (Christie 1971). In the 1970s, women's paid work had become virtually as normal as men´s on the Scandinavian labor market. Schools were forced to adapt, but did so without acknowledging a situation that became a latent problem.
The 1976 school reform in Sweden, the so-called SIA-school, was officially about the school's work environment, and it had a special focus on students having difficulties in participating in the instruction. In practice, what was established was a reform called "the full school day" for both students and teachers, aimed at matching normal business hours in the rest of society. The schools were expected to provide useful child care during all of the working hours of the parents.
Compulsory schooling seems, then, to have changed its purpose through the schools' new, but still latent, function to make it easier for both parents to have paid work. The primary formal requirement for teachers to teach and for pupils to learn something was corrupted by a duty of both to be at a certain place, namely the school and school yard, during the day, during free periods as well as teaching hours.
Some school children quickly adapted to this. They went to their school but sat in the school cafeteria rather than in the classroom when something "boring" was on the schedule. Many teachers adapted badly; they felt deprived of their professional freedom. Their job was now time bound, like most other employees in the private or public sector. Many, however, continued their old professional freedom to make preparations for next-day-lessons when they got home from school.
Both parents adapted to their children’s full school day by taking full-time jobs instead of working part-time or odd hours to be home in the afternoon when normal classes for their children had finished. Parents with full-time jobs were also more exhausted at night which affected their ability to assist with their children’s home work. Many children were met by the message: “Why don’t you do finish your assignments while at school instead of bringing it home?
Many social democrats saw the full school day as a victory of equality. Now teachers had the same working schedule as other workers, white or blue collar. Of course, the longer summer vacation of the teachers was a remaining eyesore.
Elementary schools are mandatory in Sweden and without cost. The law does not allow home schooling.
As a school form, secondary schools in Sweden are voluntary. There are no student fees. Rather, the opposite: each student, rich or poor, receives a monthly allowance from the authorities (“skolpeng”). Even charter schools are prohibited from collecting student fees; these schools get paid from the local authorities at amounts determined on the basis of by the number of enrolled students, and a given a big, but not full, fraction of costs per students in the public schools of the same locality.
Once a student meets the entrance requirements and chooses to enroll, attendance in class in secondary schools becomes mandatory. After consultation with the teacher, a high school student may make a special non- curricular school work that corresponds to 30 high school credits, a handful of the total amount required for graduation. Apart from illness, other absences without such an agreement with the teacher are an infringement of the rules. Nevertheless, breaches of attendance are the norm at many Swedish municipal high schools. It is said that students (16 +) shall in this manner practice the responsibility of being of age. But young people are often tempted to do otherwise, and Swedish school absenteeism is the highest in Europe. Their parents, of course, go to work.
The teachers are placed in a salesman-like position to attract their clients towards a rational education, including those who have been absent on previous occasions. For most high school students this system work, but for a growing proportion, it is becoming a trap – signaled by the lack of grades for students and with high drop-out rates.
In the 1980s, a group of American humanists and liberals voluntarily took the time to ponder over some practical school issues. Among them were the philosopher Mortimer J Adler, the former Provost of Columbia University, Jacques Barzun, and the former director of Chicago’s schools, Ruth B Love, who was well aware of the difficulties encountered daily in large city schools (M. J. Adler 1982). They agreed upon dividing teaching into three forms. To these we have added a forth from the above discussion.
1. a teacher explains to the children and checks to see if they have understood;
2. a teacher supervises the children’s exercises;
3. a teacher asks questions and conducts discussions stimulating the children’s creativity and curiosity;
So far Adler et al.
The first form was dominant in the schools of the past. The goal was the acquisition of organized knowledge through the teacher’s lectures, schoolbooks, tests, and home lessons. These are still useful part of teaching. They provide the basics in mathematics, languages, literature, and in natural and social sciences. However, they are not the only form.
The second form follows John Dewey’s postulate of "learning by doing." The goal is to develop one’s ability to learn and one’s judgment through exercises. The teacher supervises, either a small group such as a sports coach, or a single pupil, as in a driving lesson, and demonstrates what to do. The subjects of their coaching are reading, writing, measuring, and assessments, observation, computers — and the art of listening. Exercises and projects usually employ this form of pedagogy. Such working exercises have a different dynamic from plenary lessons.
A third form of teaching follows Socrates’ art of freeing insights through questions and discussions. The goal is to understand ideas, values, morals, and art. This pedagogy can be found in day care centers when preschoolers sit in a ring on the floor and listen to a story or comment on it. It is found in the university in seminars, and has been rare in elementary schools but is more often employed when the schoolwork is organized in project form. This works best in premises where one sits around a table, preferably a round table.
The same school subject can be addressed by several teaching forms. The first form conveys knowledge about mathematics, languages, et cetera. The second conveys knowledge about how mathematics, language, et cetera is used. The third conveys an understanding of how one uses the symbols of mathematics and language creatively. My experience from teaching in universities is that students are less inhibited if the lecturer, the seminar leader, and the thesis supervisor, and are three different people.
In many school systems in the Western world a forth form of teaching was put in use in the second half of the twentieth century:
4. a teacher asks the children what they want to learn and then helps them to research and find out what they want to know.
This fourth mode resembles the highest form of teaching: a professor’s supervision of theses by his graduate students. There are two different such cases. The professor, as a part of his research agenda, may assign a thesis topic. He or she encourages or enlists the student. The professor in this case becomes, not only a teacher of his graduate students, but their collaborator on a joint research program. In the second form, in which the topic of the thesis is self-chosen by the graduate student, the professor becomes a consultant and judge of the progress of the thesis project. There are obvious complications with all these roles. The period of the writing of a Ph D-thesis might easily be an unhappy one for he graduate student, and one should try to keep it short.
The first three forms of teaching – in which the teacher explains to the children and tests them to see if they have understood – presuppose that the teacher is a usual type of leader: leader who assigns tasks and keeps track of every student's progress. All primary grades in schools use them. These schools have different goals and methods and concern different subjects, often a preset pace progress in accordence with a nationsl or state plan. In the Montessori tradition, the teachers pay special attention to the times when a student exhibit a bust of interest and motivation at a special task, and provides additional material to this student; thus students in these schools are allowed to progress att different speeds. The fourth form of teaching is emerging as the population with egalitarian values is growing in influence, and here the teacher is more of a collaborator than a leader.
The fourth form is known to supervisors of theses at universities and had, until recently, been unknown in primary and secondary schools. When practiced, pupils stipulate what they want to learn, not the teachers, or the parents, or the composers of the curriculum. In Sweden, where I am writing this, I have noted around the turn of the century that references to “teachers” had become increasingly rare in the directives and instructions issued by central school authorities. Teachers were named "resource persons", not leaders, in the pupils’ project groups. This is the new liberal form of education, differing from the ones we had earlier taken for granted.
However, much will be lost if the three classical forms of teaching are discouraged in schools while the new, fourth form of teaching with pupil-governed project groups becomes the norm. In a political democracy, it is self-evident that you should vote in general elections, and pick those whom you want to govern the country or municipality. However, it is not self-evident that pupils in a school should vote about what they want to learn. You do not automatically help teaching in schools by filling the classrooms with rules and ideals belonging to the societal realms of polity, for example, the regulations of parliament, the courts, and the social insurance system. Classroom teaching have as little use of political-bureaucratic paraphernalia as they have of adopting advertising and the buy-and-sell mentality of business life.
The fourth mode of teaching is at best a spice of motivation, to be used sparingly in youth schools as a complement, not a substitute, for the other three. Learning, as we know it, will quickly erode in any full-blown use of a system in which children decide the content of their curriculum. As mentioned, an ‘assembly chairperson’ who all the time lets students decide by majority vote what to study is a misinformed leader of the young.